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One thing I missed while pregnant was tea. Among the many diet restrictions (sushi, lunch meat, alcohol, street drugs) is caffeine. I used to have at least a cup of tea every day and, though it's got far less caffeine than coffee, I cut it out while gestating. Drinking my cup of Lady Grey right now makes me feel at peace with the world.

Tea-drinking is not something to be taken lightly. Making it well is an art. There are ceremonies the world over involving it. And drinking it draws people together. You could make the argument that all beverages, when approached with a spirit of intention draw people together and you would not be wrong. In Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin, Haji Ali, village chief of Korphe in Pakistan says

Here (in Pakistan and Afganistan), we drink three cups of tea to do business: the first you are a stranger, the second you become a friend, and the third, you join our family, and for our family we are prepared to do anything--even die.

Three Cups of Tea is a phenomenal portrait of the varied peoples and complicated relationships of Pakistan and Afganistan. It's tempting in America to lump all the people in that area together--like those awful cubes of sugar. Whether you see all Arabs as terrorists or as radical Islamists or as victims, they're so much more than any label. Perhaps you read this and nod sagely and think, "Of course they are. We're all our own person," or similar. There's a difference between academic recognition and the story Mortenson has to tell. Some folk are indeed terrorists, pure and simple. Some are thugs. Some are protecting the land they've lived on for centuries from all comers--India, Russia, the US, even mild-mannered Mortenson. Some are victims. Some believe powerfully in Islam, but so, too, do many of us believe powerfully in Jesus. Some live and work and try to make do with what they have. And Mortenson met them all. He says

"I don't do what I'm doing to fight terror. I do it because I care about kids. Fighting terror is maybe seventh or eighth on my list of priorities. But working over there, I've learned a few things. I've learned that terror doesn't happen because some group of people somewhere like Pakistan or Afganistan simply decide to hate us. It happens because children aren't being offered a bright enough future that they have a reason to choose life over death."

He failed his attempt to climb K2, one of the tallest and most dangerous mountains in the world. He barely made it down the mountain alive and made a wrong turn in his way back to the nearest town. What he found was a tiny village at the edge of the glacier which welcomed him in as a stranger and later as a brother. They fed him tea with rancid yak's butter (their cream and sugar) and nursed him back to health. While there, Mortenson discovered that the village had no school--something like 50 children of all ages met on a wind-swept rock to copy out their lessons on their own with no help from a regular teacher. The cost of a teacher is the equivalent of $1 a week but the Pakistani government refuses to pay it. The children don't even have a building to meet in, yet they meet day after day on the rock. As my friend Bob would tell you, it's the small things that make you feel human, that give you hope. For Bob, it was having his teeth fixed so he was no longer ashamed of his smile. For this village and hundreds like it, it was having the opportunity to learn. The people of Korphe offered Greg Mortenson tea and he offered them hope.

food for thought

Just finished Jeffrey Steingarten's It Must Have Been Something I Ate and, aside from giving me a powerful desire to make fruit tarts, it's got me thinking.

Steingarten loves food. In all its forms. Fancy, greasy, insectoid, raw, and haute. He is singularly open-minded about what he eats and will spend vast sums of money and time to find the perfect version of something. He spent something like $4,000 on caviar within a few months to determine which kind was the best. In his previous book he determined "scientifically" that Heinz 57 is indeed the world's most perfect catsup (by trying upwards of 40 brands with fresh McDonald's fries).

What concerns me is the implication that there can be only one ideal of any given food. Or object or person or trait, for that matter. Take pizza: there's New York style and Chicago style, just to name two. New York style is thin and crispy on the bottom, most sellers crisping it up in their ovens just before you eat it. It's huge and greasy and satisfying. Chicago style is deep-dish, sometimes with more than one crust. It's rich and overwhelming and satisfying. They're both fantastic, they're both pizza and, as my Loving Husband would say, why choose between the two? Why does one have to be better than the other? The same could be said for BBQ. I know, it's an age-old controversy--dry vs. wet, tomato vs. vinegar vs. mustard vs. something else, beef vs. pork vs. mutton vs. poultry. Loving Husband and I have eaten a lot of BBQ. We have taken at least one vacation with the destination chosen solely because of the BBQ establishments. Certainly there have been times we didn't like the food offered, but not because of a particular style but because that style wasn't done well. Why does one style have to be the best BBQ ever? And again, Steingarten writes about the perfect chocolate chip cookie recipe (Toll House, of course), that it must be yielding but not cake-like, crisp but not crumbly, etc. In theory I agree. And most folk of any discernment would say that store-bought chocolate chip cookies are kind of crap. But one, be-all and end-all, perfect, ultimate recipe? I think not.

Perhaps this is why I'm an Episcopalian--we are, at least on paper, interested in the best of all sides, willing to have space at the table for vinegar BBQ sauce lovers and tomato-based sauce lovers, crisp and cake-y cookie lovers alike. There is such joy in being open to a multitude of tastes and people. Why restrict a church and even the Kingdom of heaven to only those people and theologies that we ourselves espouse? Why not see the beauty in each person, in each image of God, in each pot-luck dish and celebrate it as a gift from God?

we are all fish

I am in the middle of reading a book called Gould's Book of Fish: A Novel in Twelve Fish by Richard Flanagan. It's very weird in an 18th-century meets Fight Club meets Griffin and Sabine sort of way. At the moment, it feels very physical, very dense, very difficult but true. Here's a taste from the narrator and fish-painter:

They diminish me with their definitions, but I am William Buelow Gould, not a small or mean man. I am not contained between my toes & my turf but am infinite as sand.

Come closer, listen: I will tell you why I crawl close to the ground: because I choose to. Because I care not to live above it like they may fancy is the way to live, the place to be, so that they in their eyries & guard towers might look down on the earth & us & judge it all as wanting.

I care not to paint pretend pictures of long views which blur the particular & insult the living, those landscapes so beloved of the Pobjoys, those landscapes that trash the truth as they reach ever upwards into the sky, as though we only know somewhere or somebody from a distance--that's the lie of the land while the truth is never far away but up close in the dirt, in the vile details of slime & scale & filth along with the Devil, along with the angels, & all snared within the earth & us, all embodied in a single pulse of a heart--mine, yours, ours--& all my subject as I take aim & make of the fish flesh incarnate.

lord, I believe. help thou my unbelief

warning: slight grossness

A friend of mine once commented, "If you want to understand me, start with Emilio Sandoz." That's a horrifying comment since, in the novel The Sparrow Emilio has the flesh forcibly removed from his hands, sees all his friends die horrifically, and then is raped by an alien race.

Yet, in thinking about it, Emilio is something of a kindred spirit. He is a Jesuit priest and has been for most of his life. He is a brilliant linguist and a devoted priest, yet he admits that he has never really had the feeling of the presence of God. He knows in an intellectual way that God is present and watching and participating, but has never felt God's action or love. It's all theoretical until he journeys to the planet Rakhat where the divine lamp is turned on and he is suffused with joy and peace. I have had moments in my life where the presence of God was evident, where I felt warm and full and right, but they are few and far between. It sometimes feels like I'm forcing something to be a God-moment because I want it to be.

And lately, I have noticed a great fear of being useless, of not being able to work, to do, to earn my way. Emilio's useless hands struck me powerfully throughout the book as I wondered what that might be like practically and spiritually. One day, I will grow old and be "useless" in the conventional sense. Right now, I have absorbed the world's ideas of success and beat myself up when I don't achieve them. I, alone, am responsible for the spiritual growth of the youth in my care, I think. I, alone, can change their lives concretely. And when something comes by (illness, normal human imperfection, whatever) that challenges those assumptions, I am crushed. My ego is so firm that I don't really know what to do with failure.

Failure is not only normal but expected. And we don't really believe it. The prophet Isaiah was called to a failing ministry, all the prophets lived in disgrace, Jesus died. Living with faithfulness and righteousness means suffering and failure. I want to be okay with "enough" and with imperfection but it is really difficult to let go of a culture's assumptions.

Our Jewish brothers and sisters would say that perfection is not about being right but being righteous. Christian mystics have said that our journeys are not about success but about being faithful. I believe that. I really do. Lord, help my unbelief.

a forked tongue

How often do you lie?

Seriously, though, how often? I was kind of a goody-two-shoes in high school, so I never lied about staying out or who I was with. Well, except that once when my grandmother was in town and I convinced her that my folks were okay with my going on a 5-hour picnic date with my new boyfriend that they had never met. Yeah. But I’m not a big liar—I can’t. I get guilty when I tell big lies and it’s obvious to everyone. Little ones, though… “I really can’t make it.” “You look great in that dress.” “I’m actually helping the sweat-shop worker by purchasing her product.” Those I tell all the time. It’s easy. I know what I want, and I go after it. Even with a little falsehood.

I just read The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible—at one point, he get’s caught in his truth. His toddler son wants English muffin for breakfast. They’re out. Mom says, “tell him the bagel’s an English muffin—it worked yesterday.” Dad says, “I can’t tell a lie. Little buddy, it’s a bagel and it’s delicious.” Toddler son wants none of it and throws a tantrum. So should he lie to his son? I don’t know. It’s a sticky area, but I do know that lies can destroy relationships. There is no trust. There is no connection. There is no love. And when I get away with a lie, I frequently feel crappy about myself, like there’s a stain in me.

What do you think?

book thoughts

Celebration of Discipline by Richard J. Foster

A careful and heartfelt exploration of the spiritual life, it covers the disciplines of meditation, prayer, fasting, study, simplicity, solitude, submission, service, confession, worship, guidance, and celebration. We cannot expect to recognize our experiences of God, much less understand them, without effort and sacrifice on our parts. God certainly acts in our lives and we, from time to time, see it happening, but we don't know what to do with it. Foster suggests that to deepen our relationships with our brothers and sisters and with God we must be intentional in our practice, both sacred and quotidian. This is the discipline of the title.

I have said for years that I don't fast well--my body doesn't accept the lack of food and I feel ill and miserable. I thought this was a legitimate thesis. And I suppose it can be in some cases. The natural result of fasting, however, is feeling ill, hungry, and kind of empty. The whole point is the discipline of it--getting through the misery of the early stages (and sometimes the middle ones as well) can lead to significant insights into what we hunger and whose we are. Having the discipline to continue in the face of difficulty is what sets the mature apart from the immature. An acquaintance of mine simply doesn't get this in even the simplest of terms. His attitude is that if something is hard or painful, it must therefore be bad and not worth doing. So he doesn't.

Many of you may remember Dumbledore's words to Harry: "The time is coming when we will all have to choose between what is right and what is easy." The Christian life to which we are called is not easy and is not something we can take for granted. To truly change the world and to be transformed ourselves, we must take intentional action. We must discipline ourselves like soldiers or professional artists to do what needs to be done. And there is joy beyond our expectations in that discipline.

book thoughts

Leaving Church by Barbara Brown Taylor

BBT is one of the most gifted preachers of the 21st century--I heard her preach in Washington, DC once and her words both convicted and raised me up. She writes about her journey as a woman and as a priest towards/with Jesus without hiding the blemishes and without glorifying her own triumphs. It's humanity longing for God at its best. Ultimately (and given the title, I don't think this is a spoiler), she leaves the church she had been pastoring, her patience with human structures fractured but her love of God undimmed. She writes, "After twenty years of serving Mother Church at the altar, I have pitched my tent in the yard, using much of what she taught me to make a way in the world" (222).

We can't give up on the things we struggle with. Sometimes we're on the margins, feeling rejected and unwanted. Sometimes we're in the center, wondering what all the fuss is about. We can never be content with where we are but listen to where God is moving. "Much that is certain at the center," says Taylor, "is up for grabs in the wilderness, while much that is real in the wilderness turns out to be far too feral for the center" (172). It's about balance, about knowing what's enough right now, about feeling the moment when change is necessary.

Taylor asks in her final chapter, "What is saving your life now?" (225) What gives you strength and hope? Who is the presence of God in your life?